I spend about five minutes on internal emails each day – at the most. Many emails don’t even come from people, but instead are messages from different systems. In the last week, I’ve sent exactly zero emails. Not to mention, I also don’t work at //SEIBERT/MEDIA’s office in Wiesbaden. I’m a “remote” worker based in Potsdam (Germany), and I don’t even meet with my coworkers in-person on a daily basis.
Back in the day…
When I was starting out at //SEIBERT/MEDIA, things looked very different. We used internal email a lot. Tasks, adjustments, and feedback to work, discussions, releases, announcements, etc. – all came in through email. (There was even email@example.com, through which we sent funny things to each other.)
It often became complex and exhausting. In one way or another, we all experienced situations similar to this one: someone would send me a reply to an email, which I hadn’t even written in the first place. I’d read the message, try to figure out what what was being said under the following headline: “Matthias: What do you mean?”
What do I mean? Well, I really don’t know. The message that I supposedly ‘sent,’ just now came to my attention, and was sent to four other people before anyone asked me about it. I remember how this took up at least a few minutes, and that it happened more than once.
There were also internal emails with cc’s. A message would get sent to Coworker A, and I’d receive the courtesy copy. I’d read it. Then there would be a reply from Coworker B, and another reply from Coworker C, and I’d basically get the whole stream of emails merely because I was cc’d. I’d think to myself, do I actually need to know what’s going on here, or should I just ignore it?
Then, there were attached documents. I remember coordinating our customer brochures on topics such as company wikis, SEO, and hosting. That was around 2008, and although we already had an internal Wiki, a lot of our communication was still done through email. Everything went back and forth, from the PDFs in each different iteration, to annotations made on work in progress – it just got so chaotic.
And, of course, there was the e-mail that got sent to everyone, even though it had no relevance to anyone … but I’ll stop there.
There were definitely more examples of how ineffective, inefficient, and often annoying things got when our internal communication was done through email. Anyone who still has to work this way today has my utmost sympathy.
The present tense
Luckily, those days are over – and not just for me, but for all of us here. A few days ago my coworker, Martin Seibert, posted this our Intranet’s microblog:
Right now, I’m listening to the audio book, Under New Management. The author suggests a complete deactivation of emails between employees or at least a limitation of them. What do you think? I’m quite skeptical as to whether such “paternalism” could be helpful. What do you use your internal mail for today? Do you even send emails?
And here are the answers of some of our coworkers:
Since I’ve been here, I can actually count on one hand the number of internal emails I sent. A limitation or even shutdown of email wouldn’t really bother me, but I don’t think it would be necessary either.
Before I came here I used to write about 50 emails a day, now it is about two per week (if that).
I can only agree. When I started, things looked a little different, but //SEIBERT/MEDIA really shook things up and now I have hardly any email traffic that’s generated internally.
I really only send email internally when I forward customer emails to someone or tell the team that I’ll be away (vacation).
It looks as though we just about killed off internal email. How did that happen? A whole bunch of changes and improvements over the last few years led to this, one step at a time.
Communication in the agile process
In our blog, you can read about how each coworker reflected on the company’s transformation from a traditional organization to an agile one. At this point, I need not further elaborate; I’ll just emphasize the role of personal communication within our team.
First, we have the Daily Standup, which is our daily team meeting at 10:45 am. This helps minimize a lot of digital communication (I’m connected via Hangout and can be seen on a large screen in the team’s office). Everyone knows what each person will be doing throughout the day. Everything is on the table. When collaboration is needed, it can be coordinated at the Standup. Nobody needs to send an email asking, “Do you have that on the screen?”
Confluence, the core of our own intranet, is hands-down the best digital platform for effective collaboration and keeping things available in one central location. If you have Confluence in your intranet, file mix-ups, as I described in the beginning, along with other email inconveniences are a thing of the past.
The quoted conversations above took place in our intranet’s microblog. This is the perfect area for quickly sharing ideas and news, linking interesting content, asking for feedback, and discussing questions that might be of interest to several people.
Back then, Martin either wouldn’t have shared this issue with us (and, thus, not receive any feedback), or he would have done it through email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Different recipients would then click ‘Reply to All’ to add their two cents. The entire team would have to sift through all of those emails, which many might not be interested in, or may not find relevant.
And somewhere in there would probably be an email asking, “Matthias: What do you mean?”
There are people who find JIRA to be too big and powerful. It’s definitely big and powerful, but that doesn’t bother me. I don’t need to configure any dashboards, create workflows, or juggle with custom fields. I do need the digital Kanban board of our team and my current processes. I get that with JIRA. Tasks are centrally located, evaluated and, thanks to our Definition of Ready, provided with all necessary information. A vote can be held, if needed, right in the comment section. Current work status is also visible to the entire team (unless I forgot to update ticket — but our collaborative nature here has everyone looking out for and correcting mistakes). The results are then shown here and recorded in the review document in Confluence after QA.
Back in the day, every ticket would have been an e-mail, making everything decentralized and harder to track, often with several cc recipients and with various replies. Fortunately, that’s not the case anymore.
The rockstar: HipChat
For me as a remote employee, the introduction of HipChat was a real blessing – a substitute for smalltalk, it is the most important tool for coordination with the team members and other colleagues in the company. It’s also the fastest communication option after in-person conversation. The client is like a great mobile app; light, fast, and easy to use.
We have the official HipChat space, Marketing, for our team and our closed chat, Schweinhorn, where we can also discuss things outside the general public and also be off-topic without disturbing others with noise.
The main application I use is one-on-one chat. Then sometimes there are very short conversations like this with Torsten, one of the developers in our marketing team.:
“Matty, I‘d like to update the blog. May I?”
“Sure, go ahead. I’m not on WordPress right now. ”
Such a conversation would probably take ten seconds.
In the old days, Torsten would write an email and then either wait for my answer or, if this didn’t happen, simply make the update. If I was already in WordPress at that time, most likely some editorial work would have been lost. Or, he might have written an email, then later impatiently grabbed the phone and … well, let’s just say that things have changed for the better.
This is just one example. Another is getting things coordinated with our product owner, Inga. These chats are sometimes just as short, if not a little longer. If we‘re on the topic of backlog tickets that we’re going to tackle this week, we would chat one-on-one. We‘ll go through the tickets assigned to us, discuss the uncertainties, and evaluate. This will take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes. The only way it could go any faster would be if we were working together in front of the same screen.
Then, there’s Martin. If there is a more complex issue to discuss, we‘ll often do a quick video call and, if necessary, use desktop sharing. Related links to intranet or extranet content can be quickly added to the chat window, and we can go through them without changing the context.
(Of course this could all be done by phone, you might say, and you could email links to other information. Call or email if you have any questions and repeat, jumping back and forth between the two – welcome back to 2007.)
Let’s get one thing straight, though: HipChat is not a tool that is geared exclusively to remote teams in different cities or even countries. ‘Remote‘ can mean anyone who’s not sitting at the same table (take for instance, the //SEIBERT/MEDIA office, which is several hundred square meters). And HipChat even helps teams that actually do sit together at the same table. For example, if you ask one of your seven coworkers a question, she’d interrupt the other six who are not involved. If you ask in HipChat, the others can stay in their flow. Multiply that by the number of times this could happen daily.
An evolutionary process that can be promoted
Through the introduction of these new tools and methods, internal email has largely become extinct. It was an evolutionary process. When I started here, email was like an ugly, thorny bush alone in a wild, untamed land. At that time, there really was no other choice. Then seeds were laid and nurtured, and they soon grew into elegant, powerful trees around the bush. Their branches and leaves stole sunlight from the bush, and their roots absorbed all the water. Finally the bush began to wither, unbeknownst to anyone.
The remarkable thing about all this is that we all voluntarily switched to these new tools. No one actually made email off-limits. We simply learned in everyday practice that email for internal use was just plain ineffective. There must be sensible and appropriate alternatives. And the right time for someone to use an alternative system, experience, etc., is decided all on its own.
Of course, it always depends on the environment. An IT company like ours adapts such modern tools and forms of communication easily. Other organizations might find it more difficult. An employee-centric culture of transparency is definitely helpful and likely unavoidable.
We’ve often seen many new colleagues who’ve happily accepted the new possibilities and let go of email without shedding a tear.
Are you skeptical? Just take a look at how much time you and your employees spend on internal communication. Then compare that with my “five minutes a day, at the most.”
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